Haki Madhubuti: the measure of a man – Cover Story
Haki Madhubuti is a serious man. Even before the first question is asked, he lets it be known that this is an important interview. Although he has been featured in local publications, and in Ebony and Essence, this is the first national publication to devote a cover to him, and Madhubuti’s not too proud to say he’s pleased to be recognized for having “stayed the course against great odds.” He insists that the interview take place at Third World Press, the Chicago publishing house he built from the ground up. “Environment is important to a life,” he says, and indeed the institution reflects the man.
As we enter his office–an expanse of high ceilings, leather armchairs, and dark wood floors–the gentle strains of jazz vocalist Shirley Horn reflect his poet’s soul. Framed photos of loved ones and mentors grace the walls, bookshelves and tabletops. Over the stone fireplace, a large oil painting of Madhubuti, back when he was Don L. Lee sporting a thick Afro and dashiki, recalls the righteous exhortations of his first books of poetry, Think Black and Black Pride. Today, the hair is closer cropped and thinning. But Madhubuti, who turned 60 in February, is still fit from yoga, cycling 70 miles per week, and a strict vegan diet. A tan, three-piece suit tailored to his lithe, 6-foot-1 frame reflects the elder status that his bearing, not age, has earned.
The stately stone rectory that is home to Third World Press might strike some as imposing, with its black wrought-iron gate fencing-off the quiet, residential street on Chicago’s Southside. But once you enter, it invites: “Come on in. This is you, and yours.”
In the foyer, poster-size book covers from two of Third World Press’s top selling authors–Frances Cress Welsing’s The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors and Gwendolyn Brooks’ Blacks–greet you. An original Romare Bearden collage hangs in the front room, overlooking shelves and shelves of Third World releases. The Afro-pop voices of the Francophone duo Princesses Nubiennes fill the air. You sense what Madhubuti means about positive cultural images being healing, life-saving, full of grace.
But let’s be clear, no Negro nonsense is tolerated here. A neighborhood watch decal on the window warns, “We call police.”
This year marks the 35th anniversary of Third World Press, the oldest, continuously operating independent black publisher in the country. In addition to the 23 books Madhubuti has written himself, Third World has published such notable writers as Pulitzer Prize winner Gwendolyn Brooks, Black Arts poets Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Mari Evans, and Sterling Plumpp; scholars John Henrik Clarke, Nathan Hare and Hoyt Fuller.
“Third World Press is without precedent one of the most significant things to emerge out of the Black Arts Movement,” Paul Coates of Black Classic Press told The Chicago Tribune. “For him to provide an outlet for black thinkers and a center where those black writers could come together–that has to be as significant as Motown.” Historically, cultural scholars usually locate the Black Arts Movement between 1965 and 1976. “But for me,” says Madhubuti, “it never stopped.”
He went on to build institutions besides the publishing house–a school, three bookstores, organizations and publications, including Blacks Books Bulletin, which was a precursor to Black Issues Book Review.
“People always ask, `How do you stay focused and alive? You always have this sparkle’,” says Madhubuti. “I feel that I know what’s missing in our lives and what’s needed: knowledge, a spiritual base, a sense of heritage, stable finances, creative community. And I have always thought, what could I give? how could I be of service?”
Colleagues such as Third World vice president Bennett Johnson and In These Times senior editor Salim Muwakkil describe him as a “national treasure” for black communities who have never quite appreciated our indigenous wealth. He was an integral force that brought Louis Farrakhan and the late Betty Shabazz to the historic meeting at the Apollo Theater in 1995. And he was a prime architect of the Million Man March, serving on the Executive Committee.
Seeking the shadows may have limited his writing career. Had he focused solely on his poetry, he would very likely be as well-known as Nikki Giovanni, who was just starting out at risk University when his third book of poetry, Don’t Cry, Scream, electrified college campuses in 1969, selling nearly 500,000 copies. The volume established him as one of the most important poets of the Black Arts Movement. But he learned from one of his mentors, noted educator Barbara Ann Sizemore, not to pursue work “for personal aggrandizement and longevity but to make a difference.” And to make a difference, he assumed the mantle of teacher, serving as the poet-in-residence at Cornell, Howard, the University of Illinois, and Central State University. Since 1984, he has been a professor of English at Chicago State University, where he was just named a Distinguished Professor.
A life of books and ideas
Haki Madhubuti is a quiet man, a man of ideas. “He can be here [in the TWP offices] all day and you not even know it,” says Rose Perkins, the company’s secretary for the past seven years. “But get him talking about a book? It’s like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
“Books are central to my whole existence,” he says while we sit in his Third World office. At 13, his mother sent him to the Detroit Public Library to borrow Richard Wright’s Black Boy. At first he balked at having to ask for anything with “black” in the title, but recalls reading Wright as “the first time I had been smacked in the face with the power of ideas.” From that moment, “the library was a place of peace,” refuge from a fractured childhood with an absent father and a mother burdened by raising two children alone and her uncommon beauty.
“You know how some women stop cars? My mother stopped buses. She was so beautiful, and men were always on her, trying to get in there.” She worked as a janitor and barmaid to provide for Haki and his younger sister. Waitressing in one of Detroit’s most famous bars, Sonny Wilson’s, exposed her to the alcohol, drugs, and prostitution that would eventually claim her life at age 35.
The soundtrack to his childhood may have been one of “pimps and hos slamming Cadillac doors,” says Madhubuti, but literature posed other possibilities. The works of Richard Wright, Chester Himes, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks and Margaret Walker were an anchor “for boys and girls like me who were looking for something in our language to hold on to and build hopes and dreams on.”
Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, as Don Luther Lee, Madhubuti was raised in Michigan and started writing verse when he was relatively young. But in Motown’s Detroit, says Haki, “It was not considered manly to be a poet. So I said I was writing lyrics for the Temptations.”
Light-skinned and lanky during an era of increasing “black is beautiful” militancy, Madhubuti found an acceptable manhood that allowed for some poetry in playing the trumpet. Aspiring to Louis Armstrong’s virtuosity and Miles Davis’s cool, he worked out a payment plan with a pawnshop dealer for a $33 Martin and weekly lessons. “Growing up, either I was playing music with the all city-band or at the library.”
At 16, after his mother’s death, Madhubuti moved to Chicago to live with his estranged father. When that didn’t work out, he moved to the Y. Like many young black men, his futile attempts to find a job after high school led him to the Chicago Defender, the city’s black newspaper. He answered an ad for traveling magazine salesmen, a far cry from his dreams, so to save face he said he was working his way through Howard University.
In 1959, while canvassing Springfield, Illinois, Madhubuti knocked on the door of a Howard alum who, after a few questions, knew the young man was lying. But rather than kick him out, he gave him lunch “because I looked hungry,” says Haki. He also received $20 and some advice: “The one thing no one can take from you is an education.”
The thought stayed with Madhubuti as he made it to East St. Louis, where illness and hard times forced him to spend that last $20 and hock the pawnshop horn he’d bought. Feeling as if he “had nowhere else to go,” he signed up for the Army.
On the first day of basic training, a drill sergeant ripped apart, page-by-page, his copy of Paul Robeson’s political memoir, Here I Stand. It was then that Madhubuti, 18, realized he’d put himself in the hands of a less intelligent man. For the entire two years and 10 months he was enlisted, he read one book a day and wrote a 250-word review to develop a knowledge that no one could ever take away.
If nothing else Haki Madhubuti is industrious. In 1967, with $400 from an honorarium, he bought a used mimeograph machine, and with the help of poets Johari Amini and Carolyn Rodgers founded Third World Press in the basement of his Southside Chicago apartment. “It took a certain amount of boldness,” he says, “but we were young and conscious, bold and talented. We saw no impediments. Failure never entered our minds.”
The model of “building institutions with your own resources, no grants, no foundations” came from mentors Margaret Burroughs, curator of Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History, and Dudley Randall, publisher of Detroit’s Blackside Press. After getting out of the Army in 1963, he worked full-time with Burroughs at the DuSable Museum, located in the basement and first floor of her home in Chicago.
Burroughs and her husband, Charles, who was raised in the Soviet Union, opened their library to him, introducing him to Russian writers such as Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Pushkin and later Karl Marx. “They were the first black intellectuals that I ever knew.” Burroughs encouraged Madhubuti’s poetry and, when she collaborated with Randall on a Malcolm X anthology, included one of Haki’s poems dedicated to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.
Of Malcolm, Madhubuti says: “He was the first black man that I knew to speak truth to power without tapping and grinning, scratching his head and patting his belly at the same time. He helped me find my voice.” When Madhubuti traveled to Detroit to visit the fabled Broadside Press offices, he expected “at least a storefront with the name stenciled on the window.” But like Burroughs’ DuSable Museum, he walked into a home transformed into a place of business. That spirit of self-reliance still inspires Third World Press, which now has nearly 300 titles, millions of books in print, and a magnificent $1 million headquarters.
Third World’s Johnson says that the secret to the publishing house’s longevity and success lie in Madhubuti’s dedication. “It came along in the late 1960s like many black publishing companies did–Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press, Path Press, Lotus Press. They each went through similar transitions–a big bang and then there was a whimper, although Broadside probably stayed longer than anybody else. To survive, one has to be not only a businessperson and a bibliophile but to be dedicated to publishing, almost like a religion. And Haki has kept the faith. He’s never taken a salary [from TWP],” Johnson continues. “He kept the overhead low, and focused on the purpose of the company, which is to produce books. Our hypothesis all along is that black folks read,” says Johnson. “But in the last two or three years, houses like Random House and Doubleday have hired blacks to head up an imprint, because they see the market and want to exploit it. Unfortunately, like with television, there’s a certain amount of minstrelsy. Instead of portraying us in dramatic or human fashion, they portray us as clowns. Third World provides a platform for black writers to express real opinions and feelings. This is what we offer and will do even more of in the future than we’ve done the past 35 years.”
Two years after founding Third World Press, Madhubuti cofounded an independent school, the Institute of Positive Education, with Carol D. Easton and others. Easton, now known as Safisha Madhubuti, has been his wife since 1974. Back then she’d invited Madhubuti, who in 1969 was a rising star following the release of Don’t Cry, Scream, to read poetry to her students. Afterwards, he says, “I got her number. I was full of spirit, always had an eye for the sisters,” and their friendship grew. The two were passionate about the miseducation of black children in public schools, and as a man who knows how to put ideas into action–and win a woman’s heart–he offered to help her build a school.
First housed in two storefronts that are just a block away from the present two-story, red-brick complex, IPE has since split into two institutions with 400 students: the Betty Shabazz International Charter School, which serves K through eighth grade, and the New Concept School, a preschool for two- to four-year-olds. The atmosphere is decidedly “African-centered”–for example, all the grade levels are assigned Swahili names–without seeming parochial.
“The pedagogy reflects our extended family,” says Haki, who received his own Swahili name [Haki, which means “just or justice” and Madhubuti, which means “precise, accurate, dependable”] from the IPE naming committee in 1974. “Why would I name myself Madhubuti?” he says, sarcastically. “Last names with four syllables make people want to call you by your first name, and I’m not going to accept that.”
Many of the teachers and administrators have children who attend the school, and students refer to all adults as Baba (father) and Mama. The operative philosophy is, “It takes a village to raise a child.” In Baba Fred’s fourth grade class, a parent teaches spelling and facilitates a weekly bee, fulfilling the parent participation that’s required with enrollment. Third World senior editor Gwen Mitchell, whose poetry book House of Women will be released this year, gives Baba Fred several titles as suggested reading, including Gwendolyn Brooks’ Very Young Poets, to enhance his curriculum.
Over in the New Concept wing, the preschoolers watch a video narrated by Ossie Davis on how snow is made. When they “need to get peaceful,” the more active youngsters take a time out, sitting on the floor in a painted circle with a silhouette of the African continent on a background of red, yellow and green.
A ten-minute drive down Cottage Grove, past check-cashing storefronts and vacant lots on one of Chicago’s main drags, takes you to the campus of Chicago State University. In August 2001, Madhubuti was integral in establishing the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program, making Chicago State one of only two predominantly black universities in the country offering this kind of degree, according to Dr. Jacqueline Bryant, chair of the university’s English department.
“It’s a big privilege to have Professor Madhubuti on faculty, and I do mean a privilege,” says Dr. Bryant, whose critical edition of Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha will be released this year on Third World Press. “He has numerous offers from colleges and universities. I believe that he chose Chicago State University.” Though clearly a star on campus, he assumes the day-to-day tasks and responsibilities of running the department–“meetings and things that I would expect him to bow out of,” she says. Bryant adds that, in addition to his regular teaching load, he’s taken on a Saturday class with new MFA students who entered last fall, as well as an independent study. “And I don’t think that the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing would have happened without him.”
“The Gwendolyn Brooks Center should have been started at any number of universities around the country,” echoes center director Dr. B. J. Bolden, but only came to be in 1989 when Madhubuti took it upon himself to recruit the Pulitzer Prize winning poet laureate to Chicago State. The relationship that developed between Haki and Gwendolyn Brooks is well-known. The two were like mother and son. But, he says, that it was “not written in the stars that we would become close.” During the Chicago writing workshops Brooks taught in the 1960s, she and Madhubuti would have furious rows about what was “appropriate” language. One argument almost ended their friendship until someone, “I don’t remember who,” he says, extended an olive branch.
“She took the time to look into my eyes and heart and see things others didn’t,” he says. “She had great integrity, craftsmanship as a writer, love for black people, and a distinctive love for children. She had a commitment to black people and a seriousness about language and writing, the importance of craft, the importance of study.”
Eleven years ago, Madhubuti established the Annual Gwendolyn Brooks Writers’ Conference along with the center, and four years ago the center established the annual International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent. “We would not permit ourselves to whine and become angry because others left us out of their celebrations. Instead, we honor our artists with recognition and acclaim that they deserved, but would have not received otherwise,” says Bolden, who is also an associate professor of English at Chicago State University.
“People talk about Spike Lee opening doors, Haki’s done that for a lot of us,” says “cultural son Rashid Shabazz, 27, a journalism student at Columbia University’s graduate program. Captivated by Madhubuti’s poetry as a college student, Shabazz sent resume after resume to Madhubuti, requesting an internship at Third World. To test his sincerity, Madhubuti said he could come but wouldn’t get paid. Those terms were good enough for Shabazz, whose persistence was rewarded with a small stipend and a lifelong mentor. “More than a poet or essayist,” reminds Shabazz, “Haki built institutions that were necessary. And he is still tied to movement advocacy. It’s sad when people don’t know him, his cultural legacy and what he has brought.”
It’s ironic that one who’s done so much to institutionalize black culture and recognize our artists receives so little recognition himself. “Haki Madhubuti is a scholar activist and institution builder who is very spiritually oriented, very important to contemporary African-American history and culture, but he doesn’t get the recognition that he should,” says Diane Turner, an assistant professor of African-American history at the University of South Florida, Tampa, who is currently working on Conversations with Haki Madhubuti, an oral history project that will be published by the University of Mississippi Press. Part of the silence, she suspects, is Haki’s humility. “He practices what he preaches. It’s rare to find someone who lives by what he believes in.”
Part of the silence, though, strikes her as just plain peculiar. Turner cites Madhubuti’s From Plan to Planet, which looked at the need for Afrocentric studies in 1973, long before Molefi Asante’s Afrocentricity or Maulana Karenga’s Introduction to Black Studies. However, adds Turner, “his book is often not cited like Cornel West’s and other cultural critics, but Haki has already raised these questions.” When asked why he feels that he isn’t more well-known, Madhubuti says he believes that “very few respect poets as theoretical thinkers.”
“My life, more than anything else, except black struggle, has been informed by poetry. I would not be where I am today were I not a poet,” says Haki. “Whether I ever could attain the level of craftsmanship of masters like Gwendolyn Brooks or Robert Hayden is yet to be seen. But I can aspire to it. Most of us, our goal is to be in the same room with those who have led the way. For me, I never want to get lost because black poetry, the linguistic music of our people, the tales and poetry of our people, has been the stimulus, the green food that has allowed me to rise each morning at five o’clock, get up, and do my work.”
35 Years of Third World Press
Don L. Lee establishes Third World Press in his Southside Chicago basement apartment with $400, a used mimeograph machine, and the help of poets Johari Amini and Carolyn Rodgers.
Images in Black by Johari Amini Songs of a Black Bird by Carolyn Rodgers Portable Soul by Sterling Plumpp (a Chicago poet who later published five other books with Third World Press) Genre: Poetry Significance: First three books published by Third World Press, which plays an integral role in supporting writers of the Black Arts Movement, “the spiritual sister” of the Black Power Movement.
The Redemption of Africa and Black Religion by St. Clair Drake Genre: Cultural Affairs Significance: This book examines religion as a tool of resistance, specifically analyzing the role of religion in maintaining the identity of blacks in North America and the Caribbean.
Home Is a Dirty Street: The Social Oppression of Black Children by Useni Eugene Perkins Genre: Sociology Significance: A signature TWP offering, Home explains how systematic oppression prevents urban black children from achieving their true potential.
The Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race from 4500 B.C. to 2000 A.D. by Chancellor Williams Genre: History Significance: Rejected by mainstream publishers because of its outspoken nature, this classic bestseller documents the achievements of the blacks before early invasions of Africa.
Blacks by Gwendolyn Brooks Genre: Collected works Significance: This is a collector’s edition of poetry and prose spanning three decades of her work, including Annie Allen, for which Brooks became the first African American and youngest person to receive a Pulitzer Prize in 1950. Brooks transferred her publications from mainstream house Harper/Row to Third World Press.
New Plays for the Black Theatre edited by Woodie King, Jr. Genre: Drama Significance: King has collected the best of contemporary black theatre, including works by Ntozake Shange, Amid Baraka, Pearl Cleage and Kalamu ya Salaam.
Black Men, Obsolete, Single, Dangerous? by Haki R. Madhubuti Genre: Essays Significance: It has sold more than 1 million copies. In Black Men, Madhubuti examines key skills impacting the African American male. Viable solutions and tactics for survival and empowerment.
Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing Genre: Psychology Significance: A collection of 25 essays that examines the neuroses of white supremacy, based on a fear of genetic annihilation and its impact on black people. Welsing is a Third World Press best-seller.
Wise, Whys, Ys by Amid Baraka Genre: Poetry Significance: Baraka, considered the principal architect of the Black Arts Movement, is also a Third World best-seller. This work is a poetic voyage in five parts that charts the ebbs and flows of the African-American consciousness.
My Life in Search of Africa by John Henrik Clarke Genre: History Significance: Clark is one of TWP’s best-selling authors. My Life in Search of Africa finally uncovers the tumultuous life of this great figure. Through a series of autobiographical speeches given at Cornell University’s African Studies and Research Center, Clark looks back on his lifelong struggle to restore African history to its proper context in world history.
The Third World Press Fiction Series is launched with Michael Simangos novel, In the Shadow of the Sun, and continues into 2001 with the urban political thriller, Special Interest, by Chris Benson.
Tough Notes: Messages to Young Black Men by Haki R. Madhubuti Genre: Nonfiction Significance: Directed to his own sons, cultural sons, boys and young men who he mentored over the years, Tough Notes outlines visionary action for all young men seeking a whole and productive life in a highly racist and combative world. It is his first book of prose since Claiming Earth: Race, Rage, Rape, Redemption (1994)
Role Call: A Generational Anthology of Social and Political Black Literature edited by Tony Medina, Samiya A. Bashir, Quraysh Ali Lansanan, and Jiton Davidson Genre: Anthology Significance: Scores of young writers gives us poetry, fiction, nonfiction, drama and other writings that explore the cultural landscape of America and the world. This groundbreaking anthology discusses issues of race, sexuality, education, nationalism, oppression, spirituality, re-gentrification, AIDS, economics and more.
For a complete bibliography of Haki Madhubuti’s work, go to www.bibookreview.com.
Angela Ards is a writer and editor whose work focuses on race/gender politics, arts and culture, and community organizing. Her journalism and essays have appeared in The Village Voice, The Nation, The Source, Emerge, and Ms., among other publications. She is also a contributor to the anthologies Step Into a World: A Global Anthology of the New Black Literature and Still Lifting, Still Climbing: Contemporary African American Women’s Activism. The Texas native lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Ards sat down with Haki Madhubuti to discuss his life, work, and the 35th anniversary of Third World Press. Coverage begins on page 42.
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